Chinese Stories in English
The Amber Bracelet
Breeze Zhu had been working as an inpatient caregiver for six or seven years, caring mostly for older women. When she escorted her long-term patients out the hospital door, whether through the front door or out the back, she was used to seeing the family members' reactions. Sometimes they were happy and sometimes not, and when they tipped her, some were generous and some were stingy. That mattered a lot to her at first and she often haggled with them, but later on, after she'd built up some savings, she got more easy-going and didn't care whether they gave her a little more or a little less. The nurses said she understood the way things were. She did her job carefully and deftly and was a first-class caregiver.
One time Breeze was caring for an old woman named Ms. Lin, who wasn't very sick and didn't require a lot of care. The Old Lady treated Breeze quite well, calling her "Little Wish", since "Zhu" means "to wish" in Chinese. She often shared the gifts people brought her with Breeze.
A lot of people came to visit Old Lady Lin, but it didn't take Little Wish long to realize that she in fact only had one child. Her daughter was a senior executive in a large company and people called her "Manager Lin". Mother and daughter were very close.
The daughter had someone bring things to her mother just about every day, various kinds of flowers or famous snacks. One day she sent over two pairs of cloth shoes, a black pair with red flowers on them and a purple pair with black flowers. Breeze didn't know what good the shoes would be in the hospital, but she very moved by the gift. "You're a lucky woman, ma'am," she said. Old Lady Lin smiled as she sighed and shook her head.
Old Lady Lin's expression at the time was bland and undemonstrative. Breeze had always felt that the old woman was a bit different from other people. She didn't much seem like an old person. To the contrary, she was kind of mischievous and could come up with some unconventional ideas. In fact, it was a rare day if she stayed in her sickbed. Someone had brought her a toy frog that could jump from one end of the room to the other, and every time it landed it would give out a clear, crisp croak. Old Lady Lin loved to watch it. What a blessing it is, Breeze thought, to still enjoy playing with toys while you're getting old.
When Breeze said the old lady was lucky, she was mostly admiring that daughter of hers. She was about the same age as Little Wish. Besides having her driver, secretary and gofers bring things to her mother, she came to visit a lot, too. She never talked to Old Lady Lin about her symptoms or treatment, though. Maybe they discussed those things in the doctor's office.
Thus, while Little Wish knew that Old Lady Lin had a bad heart, she never found out exactly what disease she had. And she didn't need to. It didn't matter much to Breeze what disease a patient had, as long as she knew enough to do her caregiver's job well.
She was more concerned with Manager Lin's ever-changing apparel. Sometimes her sweaters had lots of openings in them, like she was afraid the air couldn't get in: sometimes two balls were hanging from her boots and would sway around when she walked. One of the people who followed the old lady around (and there was always someone) told her, "On the various occasions when Manager Lin puts in an appearance, the report will always mention what she was wearing." Once again, the old lady sighed and shook her head.
One day Manager Lin came by holding a bouquet of flowers, very fresh ones that she said had just been shipped in from Yunnan Province. She had on a black sweater, solid with no holes, and a red leather skirt. A glossy, honey-colored pendant hung over her chest. She wore a bracelet of the same color on her wrist, a shimmering circle of faint light that was slipped casually over the sleeve of her sweater. Breeze didn't know what material it was made from and just thought it looked nice.
"What you're wearing today would be considered formal," Old Lady Lin said as she looked over her daughter. "The yellow and black go well together. Very elegant."
Then the daughter took the bracelet off and put it in her mother's hand so she could feel it. She said, "It's called 'beeswax,' It's the top grade of amber. It's been worked well, too."
Old Lady Lin rubbed the bracelet absently. "When one wears jewelry, simpler is better," she said. "It's just fortunate you don't like such things."
Manager Lin talked for a bit, mostly about how busy she was, then left like a gust of wind. Breeze helped Old Lady Lin with her dinner. There was fish on the table, which the nutritionist recommended for the patients. As Breeze was carefully picking out the fish bones, she asked, "Is amber very expensive?"
"It depends on the quality...." Old Lady Lin said, and then she started coughing. Breeze quickly poured her some water and patted her back. She didn't dare ask anything more.
Breeze's husband came to see her a few days later. He guarded the home front while his wife was away making money to send their son to high school. Every year when winter came, if Breeze didn't return to the village, he would come to the city for a visit and bring her some specialty foods from home. This time it was several packages of dried Chinese dates and ramie seeds, which were produced in their hometown using a technique just developed a few years ago.
They wanted to buy a cotton jacket for their son, so they went to a market that sold things at retail for wholesale prices. The cold north wind that was howling outside squeezed in through the roof and walls. The couple walked around the market several times and bought the things they'd come for. Then, as they strolled along casually, they happened on a stall selling all sorts of colorful little trinkets.
Breeze stopped short, her eyes on a piece of costume jewelry. It looked just like the amber bracelet. She picked it up and felt it, and looked at it this way and that, and couldn't see any difference between it and Manager Lin's. She put it down and picked it back up several times.
"Want to buy it?" her husband asked.
"Who'd waste their money like that?" Breeze said, but she was still holding the bracelet in her hand. Her husband could read her like a book, so he bargained with the vendor and bought the bracelet for five Yuan. Breeze felt a flurry of warmth ripple through her heart, even though she understood clearly that it was money that she herself had earned.
She tucked the bracelet away and, feeling quite pleased, went with her husband to a small noodle shop. They ordered two bowls of noodles and chatted idly as they ate. She said: "A patient in the ward next to mine wants to go to Hainan Island to convalesce when she gets out of the hospital. I've heard she'll need a caregiver there."
"That's so far away," her husband said. "Forget about it."
Breeze was quite contented and kept fondling the bracelet on the way back to the hospital. When she got there, she shared the dried dates and ramie seeds from her hometown with Old Lady Lin. The old lady put in her dentures just so she could sample the food.
"We used to be able to get ramie seeds here," she said, "and they were as savory and crispy as these."
Breeze pointed to the bracelet on her wrist and asked Old Lady Lin to guess what it was worth. "It looks just like the other one," the old woman replied. "Ten Yuan? Twenty?"
Breeze said, "If you'll pay that much, I'll sell it to you." They both laughed.
The caregivers got together after dinner and naturally talked about the new bracelet Breeze was wearing. One of them said, "I knew it was fake as soon as I saw it. Glass beads, nothing more."
Another one said, "It doesn't matter if it's fake. It looks real."
"I don't care if it's real or fake," another said. "It looks nice, and that's all right by me."
Manager Lin came by that evening, and Breeze asked her to have a look at the bracelet, too. As luck would have it, Manager Lin was wearing her amber bracelet outside the sleeve of a thin, gray sweatshirt. "Breeze likes these kinds of bracelets so much," Old Lady Lin said abruptly, "you two should trade for a few days."
"You always have such novel ideas, Mom," her daughter said with a smile. She slipped off her bracelet but Breeze was reluctant to take it.
"Go ahead and put it on," Manager Lin said, setting the bracelet down on the table. "There's nothing to be afraid of, as long as my mom's happy."
Breeze put her bracelet on the table, too. "If that's what the lady wants," she said as she picked up Manager Lin's bracelet and put it on. Then she left the room so that the mother and daughter could talk.
Old Lady Lin picked up Breeze's bracelet and looked it over. "It does look like the real thing. Not the same luster, is all. Anyone in the trade would spot it right off." She handed it to her daughter and said, "Keep it in a safe place and don't lose it. It has to be returned to her. "
She felt a sense of relief when she saw her daughter put on the bracelet. She thought to herself that her daughter was an easy-going woman, not hypocritical in the least, who wouldn't forbid other people from wearing things that she'd worn herself.
Manager Lin picked up her cell phone. While she was talking, another phone in her purse started to ring. After looking to see what number was calling, she issued some simple, straightforward instructions and ended the call she was on. Then she picked up the phone that was ringing and, in a completely different tone of voice, tactfully made arrangements for something.
Watching her daughter, Old Lady Lin couldn't help sighing. "In your hands," she said, shaking her head, "fake is real, too."
Manager Lin left the hospital and went back to her office. It was normal for her to work well into the night. As she stood before her company's elevator and reached out to press a button, the bracelet was exposed under her thin woolen shawl.
Two fashionably dressed ladies stood in front of one of the other elevator doors speaking to each other in low voices. One said, "Look at the bracelet Manager Lin over there is wearing. I bet it's amber."
The other said, very much like an expert in the field, "Yes, it's either from the Baltic Sea or from India." Actually, that one hadn't even seen the bracelet, and the first one had only a vague impression.
Manager Lin laughed to herself. When she got back to her office, she tossed the bracelet down on a small table beside her desk.
The next day, someone who was only half familiar to Manager Lin came into her office to ask her to do something. He saw the bracelet and said, "Such a precious thing, and it's just thrown down here." After he left he looked around and found an exquisite box, which he sent to her. He said that nice things go along with nice things to wear, and it was his heart's desire to add another nice thing to those she certainly already had.
Her secretary accepted the box. Manager Lin glanced at it and thought she could show it to her mother to prove what she'd been saying.
Breeze felt rather smug when she put on the real amber bracelet. She wanted to let her buddies know that what she was wearing this time wasn't a fake.
Everyone was in the employees' lunch room getting their trays and eating. She held her wrist up in front of this one and that one and waited for them to say how beautiful it was. Once again they all expressed an opinion, but this time their opinions were all pretty much the same. Briefly, they said that with her wearing it, it might as well be fake, because no one would believe it was real. Breeze was a little depressed.
The head nurse came along just then and saw the bracelet on Breeze's wrist. "Wow, what a pretty thing," she exclaimed. Breeze felt like she'd found a supporter as she raised her hand to let the nurse have a better look. She was surprised when the nurse said, "It looks real, like it's really valuable. Plexiglas like this can really fake you out. You've got a good eye for picking things."
"No," Breeze said. "Take a close look. This is the real thing.
"Since you're wearing it," the nurse replied, "it's got to be a fake."
Manager Lin went to the United States on a business trip and didn't visit the hospital for several days. It was quiet in the patients' ward. Breeze told Old Lady Lin how people had reacted to the bracelet. The old woman looked indifferent to what Breeze was saying and didn't seem to remember the bracelet at all.
Then one day Manager Lin called to say that she was on her way to the airport. She wouldn't get in until late that night and would come to the hospital the next day. The old woman said something indistinct and, when her daughter said she didn't hear it, Old Lady Lin almost shouted, "OK." She was so loud that it startled Breeze.
The phone call was cut off, but another call came in right away. It was Manager Lin again, calling to ask if her mother was all right.
"Don't worry," the old woman said.
Manager Lin said something that sounded like, "I am worried." She said a few more things and then hung up the phone.
After that the old lady seemed to be a bit disoriented. That evening she suddenly asked Breeze if she could sing her some songs. Breeze said, "I used to like to sing at home, but I've forgotten all the songs now."
Actually the song Old Lady Lin wanted to hear most was an English language song. No one in the ward could sing it for her, so she stopped asking and didn't say anything else the rest of the evening.
Shortly after midnight, Breeze heard Old Lady Lin humming something, but she didn't pay attention. When she went to get ready for bed, she noticed that the old woman hadn't moved. She went over to look and saw that her eyes were shut and she was completely still. She said the woman's name a few times but there was no reaction. She seemed to have stopped breathing.
Breeze was scared out of her wits. She hurried to ring the alarm, and then ran out of the ward to get help. Both doctors and nurses came. After the doctors had examined the old lady, they stood around the bed for moment, then gently pulled the white sheet up over her head.
Manager Lin arrived shortly thereafter. She leaned over and hugged her mother for a long time, until the people who'd come with her pulled her away. Everyone could see the large wet spot left by her tears on the sheet. Breeze wondered why she had cried so silently while she was pouring out her sorrow. Maybe people like her don't cry out loud.
Many more people came by after that. Nobody blamed Breeze. When it's time for someone to cross over, no one can talk them out of it.
Breeze really felt bad. She'd been a caregiver all these years, and taken care of so many patients, but she'd never seen anything like that. She'd gone so quietly, so easily, with no ventilator, no tracheotomy, no wires or tubes in her body. No one was bothered, everything was clean and quiet as she peacefully left this world. She sighed, thinking that this was actually a blessing, too.
A few days later, Breeze thought of Manager Lin's real amber bracelet. She should return it and get hers back. She wasn't willing to leave her own worthless possession with someone else in exchange for their valuable property. Besides, her husband had purchased that bracelet for her.
She got the address of Manager Lin's company from the nurses' station and asked for some time off. She found a clean sheet of paper, wrapped the bracelet in it and left the hospital. She boarded a bus and got off at Manager Lin's company.
A number of people were lined up outside Manager Lin's office waiting to see her, almost as many as in the waiting room at the hospital, but after the secretary announced her, Breeze was shown right in. After listening to Breeze explain why she'd come, Manager Lin took that exquisite box out of a drawer, opened it and handed it her.
Breeze handed Manager Lin her paper parcel and made to take her bracelet out of the gilded box. Manager Lin pressed down on the lid of the box and pushed it toward Breeze, gesturing for her to keep both the box and the bracelet. Then she put on her amber bracelet and murmured, "Mom said it looked good like this." Her eyes were bright with tears and a big one fell on her blouse. She was dressed all in black that day.
Breeze put the box in her backpack and started to leave, but Manager Lin asked her to wait. She took a stack of money from a black purse by her side and handed it to Breeze. "You were at my mom's side at the end," she whispered. "Thank you. Take a cab back to the hospital." Breeze hesitated a moment before accepting the money, thinking that it was enough for several round trips to Hainan Island.
On the street after she left the building, Breeze looked up and tried to find Manager Lin's window, but they were all the same, equally beautiful and stylish. She couldn't tell which one it was, and couldn't even remember which floor she'd just been on.
The tree branches bent in the wind and appeared to be huddling against the cold. A taxi drove by. Breeze touched her backpack but still couldn't make up her mind to take a cab. She hunched over and headed into the wind, straight toward the entrance to the subway station.
Time passed, and everything was as it had been at the hospital. Many people moved in, and some left through the front door while others left through the back. Breeze's life was the same as before, escorting old patients out when they left and greeting new ones when they arrived. She kept the bracelet in the box and the box in a chest.
It was late spring of the following year before she thought to take it out and wear it again. At the time she had another old woman as a patient, who said the bracelet was pretty when she saw it. Breeze deliberately said, "It's amber."
The old lady looked at her, confused, and said slowly: "Come on, it's a fake, right?"
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